After discovering the life of minorities in the Mai Chau countryside and then slaloming between scooters to visit Hanoi, we headed to the village of Tam Coc, near the city of Ninh Binh to explore the area also known as Halong bay on Land.
” Who has never heard of Halong Bay? “
You know, these strange rock formations that gush out of the water in a sumptuous setting…
The traditional Halong Bay is undoubtedly Vietnam’s main tourist attraction (more than 2 million visitors annually). Well, on this “land version” of the Halong Bay, they are the same kharstic rocks but this time in the middle of rivers and rice fields, creating landscapes similar to those we had admired around Guilin in China. In our opinion it’s equivalently stunning, but simply far less crowded!
From Hanoi to Tam Coc and then to the Guesthouse “Chez Loan”
As usual, we take a bus to the small village of Tam Coc. But If you want our opinion, you might as well take a tourist bus that makes a day trip to this spot (paying only for the trip of course) because the bus will pick you up in front of the hotel and drop you off directly in Tam Coc…. If you prefer the local bus, you will have to go by yourself to the Hanoi bus station, take a bus to Ninh Binh and finally go to Tam Coc which is 5-10 km away (motorcycle taxi).
Once in Tam Coc, we recommend only one address: the guesthous “chez Loan“, located 1km from the village (it is quite feasible on foot).
Where to stay in Tam Coc? Chez Loan
Loan, the owner, speaks perfect French and has a very touching story:
After growing up in the region working in the rice fields and learning embroidery, fishing and singing, she married and had her first child at the age of 21. To make ends meet, she also works as a rower for tourists and often takes her son with her because she has no one to look after him.
One day, a French family is in their boat to visit Halong Bay on land…. The family is touched by Loan’s situation and decides, once back in France, to help her a little bit financially.
Thus, Loan will first buy land in Tam Coc to open a small restaurant which will then become a small hotel…. She also decided to go to Hanoi to learn French as a sign of gratitude to the family that helped her.
Loan is a very welcoming woman and her cuisine is delicious. She helped us to visit the area and even got up at 5:00 in the morning on the day of our departure to offer us a rice cake. In short, a great little piece of woman who will make your stay unforgettable… (rooms start at $25 with bike rental included).
Update 2019: It seems that the little guesthouse has evolved quite a bit since 2013…. 🙂 Prices have increased somewhat (about 25€ per night vs 13€ back in 2013) but apparently the standing has also improved a lot. The feedback we all have remains very positive, but it is clearly not the same price range as it was at the time of our trip. In a more “budget” vein, we have had several feedback on the Tam Coc central hostel, the double rooms are 9€ and apparently it’s very nice (we didn’t stay there, it’s only a hostel that was mentioned to us several times by email when people thought “chez Loan” had become too expensive).
Visit Tam Coc by bike
After listening to Loan’s good recommendations (she gave us a little map with some directions), we ride our bikes to discover the surroundings. What a pleasure to drive quietly in such a setting…. We reach a small isolated temple a few kilometers from the village of Tam Coc.
We are all alone and we appreciate the serenity that emerges from this place. After taking our time to visit the temple, we take our bikes back until we reach the edge of the river.
We take a malicious pleasure in observing the tourist boats that follow each other in the middle of the rice fields and hills. Loan had warned us, there are a lot of people who are touring by boat from Tam Coc. When a bus drops off tourists, about thirty boats follow each other on the river… So imagine if several buses disembark at the same time.
Getting on top of NANG MUA
From the riverside, we can see a small temple on top of a kharstic hill… We think that the view must be great from above and we look for the path to the top. So to avoid searching, know that you have to drive towards Ninh Binh and take the first street on the left at the Tam Coc exit.
Then drive a few kms observing the hills and you should soon see a large white staircase, which is the one to climb! (it is also indicated on Loan’s map) There must be 400-500 steps to climb… nothing insurmountable especially after training on Mount Emei in China 😉 . The view from the top is clearly worth the little effort….
We really overlook the whole region and if the weather is clear, we can really see for miles around. There is also a magnificent statue of a dragon that runs along the ridge…. In any case, if you are in the region, don’t miss this viewpoint!
Do a boat tour in Tam Coc
What brings the majority of tourists to the village of Tam Coc is the possibility of following the various rivers that criss-cross the hills on a boat. As you can imagine, it’s quite nice to sit in a boat and cross rice fields, caves and other rock formations without making an effort. On the other hand, it is less so if you get stuck in a traffic jam of 30 boats with Chinese people screaming in your ears 😉 (but other than that we love Chinese tourists haha)…
There are 3 navigable boat routes, all of which last between 2 and 4 hours. If you want to avoid the crowd, it is advisable to get up early or wait until mid-afternoon to do your tour.
As most visitors make a “day trip” from Hanoi, the buses all arrive between 10:00 and 12:00… So there can be a lot of people at this time of day (which, in my opinion, completely ruins the experience). We also advise you to avoid the tour that starts from the village of Tam Coc because it is by far the most touristic and not necessarily the most impressive…
By following Loan’s wise advice once again, we cycled about ten kilometres early in the morning to reach Ben Thuyen’s route… A decision we didn’t regret.
Note: if you are in Hanoi and have little time, a tour can clearly be considered. You will find several examples of such tours over here. Tours generally cost between €25 and €50 per person and include transport from Hanoi, a meal and a boat trip. However, if you have more time we clearly recommend you come spend a night or 2 here. By sleeping on site you will have more opportunity to get away from the “classic” tours.
Ben Thuyen Pier – Tam Coc
Arriving at Ben Thuyen’s small pier at around 8:00 am, we were simply alone. There was just a little grandmother waiting in her boat for the first tourists of the day (i.e. us). So she was very happy to see us arrive on our bikes ;-).
After paying 300,000 dongs, we get on the small boat for a tour that will last more than 3 hours. Our amazing rower, although she didn’t speak a word of English, was very friendly and alternated a style of rowing with her hands or with her feets… Yes, it’s not a joke! The locals also row with their feets and are just as agile in this way…
It must be said that they must alternate because rowing over such long distances is tiring! We were even a little ashamed not to help our little grandmother with Fabienne although in the end, she was probably more used to it than we were ;-).
Seeing the caves in Tam Coc
The tour is super pleasant, peaceful and alternates between rice fields, caves (we have crossed 3 of them) and kharstic hills. Once at the end of the tour, you can even visit a larger cave for an additional 100,000 dongs. Don’t hesitate for a second and take the tour because it’s really worth it!
Once we entered the cave, we took a new boat and got more than a kilometre inside on the little river. And even if the lighting was kitschy (it seems to be the norm in Vietnam), it is still something to sail 1km in a cave that is barely 2 meters high…….. not sure that this expedition would be open to the public in our area…).
What did we think about Tam Coc?
So as you can see, The Halong Bay on Land is by far less known than its maritime namesake, but it is clearly worth a detour of a few days. By avoiding coming on an organized tour, you can easily avoid the crowd and enjoy these splendid kharstic landscapes by bike and boat.
And don’t forget to climb the stairs to reach the temple, the view is just incredible. On that note, we look forward to seeing you soon for our discovery of the sea halong bay from Cat Ba Island… to compare the landscapes 😉
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